Mommie Dearest

13 May 2012

For Mother’s Day, I re-read Angelica Garnett’s hatchet job on her mother Vanessa Bell, in her memoir Deceived with Kindess.

Today is Mothers’ Day in New Zealand – it’s celebrated here in the UK in March, a similarly shite time of the year for fresh flower delivery – and it seems as good a time as any to read of the recent death of Angelica Garnett, the daughter of the painter Vanessa Bell and a child of the Bloomsbury Group. A painter herself, she’s best known for her 1984 memoir, Deceived With Kindness, which counts as one of the most damning indictments of the mother-daughter relationship in the canon. If, like me, today involves pondering your own complicated relationship with your mother, Angelica’s story is both light relief and a cautionary tale.

The critic Harold Bloom famously speculated that writers and artists needed to “kill” their forebears to be able to find their own voice, describing the artistic process as a Freudian struggle to vanquish the dominance of one’s parents. Angelica’s life and career seemed to embody that struggle wholeheartedly, as she became an ambivalent custodian of the Bloomsbury legacy – part high priestess and part avenging angel. Like her parents, she became an artist and writer, and spent much of her life spearheading the Bloomsbury Trust and other initiatives to preserve the homes and artworks of her parents and their circle. But in doing so, she also delivered a savage hatchet job on her bohemian upbringing and the secrets and lies that formed the delicate structure of her family life, in which she identified herself as a victim. Her life and work became a perfect if somewhat grim embodiment of Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” theory: acknowledging the importance of her family origins and celebrating their achievements, while needing to exorcise herself of their influence.

Deceived With Kindness is one of the most compellingly nasty and self-pitying memoirs around, couched in elegantly formed language and with an unassailable artistic pedigree: it’s like Mommie Dearest for the middle classes. Angelica described her book primarily as “a therapeutic exercise, an effort to save myself from hypocrisy and pretence by creeping out into the open”, and enabling her to reclaim her past. This appears blameless, but not quite the whole truth: it also seems to have been a carefully timed protest against the 1960s and 1970s era interest in the Bloomsbury Group, and a finger-wagging corrective to a series of flattering Bloomsbury biographies coming out at the time. Starting with Michael Holroyd’s celebrated life of Lytton Strachey (1968), and Frances Spalding’s biographies of Clive and Vanessa Bell (1980-3), these works idolised the Group as counter-cultural heroes – just right for the mores of the Swinging Sixties –  praising their bold rejections of Victorian morality, their artistic and sexual experimentation and the excitement of their creative communities. In Spalding’s book, Vanessa is portrayed as a glorious earth mother, simultaneously juggling a fulfilling career as a painter, a number of lovers, and nurturing her children in the middle of a colourful bohemian world, while her childless and sexually frigid sister Virginia Woolf stood by, supportive but envious of Vanessa’s ability to “have it all”, Wonder Woman style.

Deceived With Kindness fell like a guillotine blade through this romanticised view of Vanessa and the myth of Bloomsbury. Far from being romantic heroes, Vanessa, Duncan and Co were cast as emotionally distance and misguided aesthetes, whose experiments with bohemianism and sexual liberation were in fact exercises in pretension and self delusion, leading to broken hearts and a lot of slammed doors and smashed crockery. Angelica describes her mother, insightfully but mercilessly, as a quivering mess, constantly battling with inferiority about her artistic aspirations, seething with jealousy over Duncan’s affairs with men, and desperate with fear over the imminent risk of abandonment.

The book’s most hair-raising revelation, worthy of its own episode on The Jerry Springer Show, is the account of her mother’s deception about Angelica’s parentage. Angelica was born and grew up at Charleston, a farm in East Sussex (now a museum to the Bloomsbury Group) as the product of a complicated menage-a-trois. Vanessa Bell was married to but estranged from her husband, art critic Clive Bell, and romantically entangled with Duncan Grant, a charismatic Scottish painter who was primarily gay. Vanessa rented Charleston to allow Grant and his lover David “Bunny” Garnett to play at being farmers and thus avoid military conscription, but also for the group to live their unconventional romantic arrangements away from the gossip of London, and put into practice their somewhat naive Socialist ideals of an artistic rural existence. Angelica was the child of Vanessa and Grant’s brief love affair, but shortly after her birth it was agreed that she would be identified as Clive’s daughter. The reasons for the deception are sketchy and contradictory. Vanessa told Angelica that Duncan thought himself “too young” to be a father, though he was already in his mid-30s. The truth appears to have been more mercenary, less romantic, and more concerned with Victorian morality than the group were inclined to admit to: concern about servants’ gossip, fear of the tag of illegitimacy, and a strategic renaming of Angelica as a Bell to allow her an inheritance from Clive’s wealthy land-owning family.

Extraordinarily, everyone kept schtum until Angelica turned 18, when Vanessa told her the truth. It’s a mother-daughter confrontation scene worthy of soap opera, but as described by Angelica, it sounds excruciatingly awful (if beautifully enunciated). The family had just received news that Julian, Vanessa’s first child with Clive, had been killed serving in the Spanish Civil War. His death devastated Vanessa, who took to bed in depressive grief, eventually identifying (at least accordingly to Angelica) that her best resource to aid her recovery, “apart from work, was to focus her attention on her remaining children.” Angelica describes the revelation thus:

One day when Vanessa was better she took me into the drawing-room at Charleston and told me that Duncan, not Clive, was my father. She hugged me close and spoke about love: underneath her sweetness of manner lay an embarrassment and lack of ease of which I was acutely aware, and which washed over my head like the waves of the sea…. Anxious about how I was going to take it, she said it need change nothing, since it was the intimacy of the present, not the facts of the past, that was important…. If Vanessa expected me to show surprise at her information, she must have been disappointed: I hardly batted an eyelid, though when she left me to myself I was filled with euphoria. It was a fact which I had obscurely known for a long while. Whatever explosion there may have been occurred far below the surface: at the time I simply felt that a missing piece had been slotted into place.

The euphoria didn’t last long. Angelica became bitterly resentful towards her family for keeping the truth from her for so long. Partially out of protest, she married Bunny Garnett, who was 26 years her senior (and who had, creepily, been present at her birth and speculated that one day he would marry her). Although horrified, Vanessa and Duncan consented – but again, chose to keep secret from Angelica, as Bunny did himself, that he had once been her father’s lover. Angelica’s discovery of this fact makes for one of the most depressing sections of the book – as do her speculations that Bunny had only married to her to maintain a bond with Duncan, whom he still loved, and as an especially heartless form of revenge on Vanessa, who he had once propositioned. Unsurprisingly, Angelica divorced Bunny fairly soon after, and spent the rest of her life struggling to reclaim her identity free from her family’s legacy of lies. That she did and didn’t succeed, becoming the reluctant handmaiden of the temple of Bloomsbury, is both comic and tragic.

Deceived With Kindness received highly divisive reviews. For critics of Bloomsbury, it inspired a fresh wave of derision towards the Group, who, by the mid 1980s, at least, were widely viewed as pretentious elitists making well-bred messes of their lives. Others more sympathetic to Bloomsbury and to Vanessa criticised Angelica for publishing what amounted to a character assassination. She was also accused of hypocrisy, by pulling down her Bloomsbury inheritance with one hand while using her distinguished family associations to further her own career with the other.

I share some of this antipathy towards Angelica’s memoir. While no one can deny her right to be monumentally pissed off and choose to tell the world about it, reading it is a singularly unpleasant experience, which leaves a bad taste in the mouth. But why?

In The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm’s brilliant book about the cult of biography springing up around the life and death of poet Sylvia Plath, she makes a few choice observations about why Deceived With Kindness is such a difficult pill to swallow:

Angelica Garnett’s memoir… is full of aggrievement and complaint and one doesn’t like her for it – as ultimately one doesn’t like it. We don’t like to be told what vengeful memoirs like Angelica’s…. oblige us to consider: that our children and friends do not love us, that we are neurotic, blind, pathetic, that under the eye of God our life will be seen as a mistake, something botched and wasted.

As I skimmed through Deceived With Kindness again today, I found myself once again feeling profound sympathy for Vanessa, of the kind that only the dead can inspire: condemned after her death as a silly woman by a less-than-dutiful daughter. This seems somehow wrong, as if in a soberer frame of mind I would side with Angelica and agree that Vanessa was a bad mother, who deserved the posthumous kick in the pants that Angelica gave her. Still, though, one feels for Vanessa – but why? Malcolm considers the same question as she deliberates over why public opinion has generally sided with Sylvia Plath as the victim of her marriage to Ted Hughes, while casting Hughes as the villain of the piece. Applying Freudian psychoanalytic theory, Malcolm concludes that this is, in fact, a very human preference for the dead over the living:

The dead have been chosen over the living. We choose the dead because of our tie to them, our identification with them. Their helplessness, passivity, vulnerability is our own. We all yearn towards the state of inaniation, the condition of harmlessness, where we are perforce loveable and fragile.

Malcolm’s (and Freud’s) theory explains in a nutshell why we continually say that it’s not polite to speak ill of the dead. Perhaps this is less about our cultural values of respect for those who aren’t living, and more about our own fears of being judged as harshly ourselves once we are dead or dying. And so we sympathise with Vanessa rather than Angelica, and pray that our own descendants won’t pass judgment over us in the public and excoriating way that Angelica did. Although it seems important for Angelica and all of us who’ve taken issue with our parents’ weaknesses and failings to speak the truth about them when they die, ultimately, I think, the impulse towards nostalgia becomes stronger, and we want to forgive as a precursor to being forgiven ourselves.

As Deceived With Kindness proves, death doesn’t necessarily end the arguments that we have with our parents nor heal the sense of grievance we might carry about our pasts, but it does bring an end to the possibility of any dialogue with them that might reveal more understanding. Angelica’s memoir seethes with the bitterness of a woman who clearly never had the opportunity to scream bloody murder at her parents, or to demand of them the kind of relationship that she wanted. By her own admission, she sought for her missing father-figure in her marriage to a much older man, a strategy that proved to be disastrous. Of her biological father, she writes:

[O]ur relationship, though in many ways delightful, was a mere simulacrum. We were not like father and daughter. There were no fights or struggles, no displays of authority and no moments of increased love and affection. All was gentle, equable and superficial … My dream of the perfect father – unrealised – possessed me … My marriage was but a continuation of it, and almost engulfed me.

It’s a profound insight, but what sticks most in the mind after reading it is that Angelica, like many angry and aggrieved children, has lost her opportunity to fulfil her “dream” of a fulfilling relationship with Duncan. Her insights have been realised too late, and she is left picking through the ashes of time to make sense of her rather sordid legacy. Her frustration in the book seems to be as much towards herself as it is towards her parents, though she never quite manages to own her own feelings. In that sense, she becomes, ironically, more like her parents than she seems to realise.

Now that Angelica herself has died, at the remarkable age of 93, the goalposts have shifted again. Although I never met her, and passed up an opportunity to hear her speak at Charleston a few years ago, I’m sad that she’s gone, as she represented the last direct familial contact that our generation has with Virginia Woolf and the rest of the Bloomsbury set. Their world is gone now, and the warring sexual politics and struggle of their lives has been smoothed over into the tourist-friendly, aesthetically pleasing museum exhibit of Charleston, now open to the public and available as a shrine to me and other nostalgists for the literary past. While she lived, Angelica was a reminder that not was well in bohemia, and that any form of social experimentation has, in her own words, its “unconscious but consenting casualties”. Now that she’s gone, Bloomsbury feels truly cemented in the past, shrouded by a gauzy film of nostalgia. It’s possible too, now, to feel the sympathy for Angelica that she probably always deserved, and which her book only partially brought her.

Interestingly, Angelica lived long enough to provide a corrective to her earlier, angrier self, and even express a little regret at the way in which she first chose to relate her story. In her preface to a re-edition of Deceived With Kindness, written in 1994, she writes:

If I ask myself today whether I would write this book in the same way – that is, if given the subject, I would want to say the same things, the answer is Yes – albeit differently. In the ten years since it was published, I have had time to see things – above all myself – otherwise, even to grow up a little…. Accusation and blame, however, are dreary props for the ego. I am convinced that, had I confronted my parents while they were still alive, in spite of any momentary pain and incomprehension, both they and I would have had a much happier relationship. I cannot excuse myself for this omission, which I now see so clearly was my business and not theirs…. It [is] also necessary to recognise that, together with my resentment, I must discard the self-protective role of eternal victim.

If Deceived With Kindness can be said to teach us anything, it’s that the window of opportunity to reconcile ourselves fully with our families is fleeting, and dependant on the vagarities of age and time, and so therefore not fully within our control. On the flipside, it also demonstrates the dangers in wanting to pursue a “gentle, equable and superficial” relationship with one’s families at the expense of understanding our own darker, less pleasant truths. Though we can’t choose our families or control our own upbringings, what we do with that legacy and how we choose to face it (or deny it) is largely up to us. This is often an act of monumental difficulty, requiring a courage that, in Angelica’s case, can’t always be mustered.

Angelica tried her best, but failed for the most part to say what she needed to say, and for better or for worse channeled an unfinished argument into a provocative memoir. Perhaps she would have been happier had she made her peace with her parents sooner, and not felt the need to share the story with the world, and we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to peek through the shuttered windows of Charleston and discover the secrets and lies of her posh artistic coterie. Her loss has truly been our gain.

So rest in peace, Angelica, with thanks for the voyeuristic pleasures provided by your airing your dirty laundry in public, and for the insights, inadvertent and conscious, that you provided into the eternal struggle between parents and children. If there is a Heaven, I hope that Vanessa and Angelica are reunited, either involved in a mud-splattered Dynasty-style bitch fight, or else doing an interpretive dance in the garden wearing cloaks made from old velvet curtains, with flowers in their hair.


  1. This is a devasting – abeit oblique – critique of the way the English (a) treat their animals better than their children (b) do evasiveness and represssion better than anyone else. It’s a shame it took her ten years after publishing to realise that forgiveness is an act of strength and that she could have chosen to let go of the damage far earlier and done something like sensible like run off to a new life in New Zealand

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